I first met Cathy at the Boston airport and within moments of meeting her I knew I had found a soul sister. We were instantly at ease with each other and chatting as if we were old friends. I’ve since learned this is a common experience with those who are fortunate to meet Cathy. She is both kind and wise as well as a joy to be around.
Cathy is well-known in the aromatherapy world for her soulful work with aromatics. Her latest work revolves around the heart-centered transformation of menopause.
In this interview we discuss her new book and her work with alchemy.
To cut a long story a little short, within one year I lost my mum, met my husband, moved from France to the US and was diagnosed with cancer. All these changes and emotional milestones triggered a deep shift in myself and my work. I realized that I needed to heal deeply on all levels—not just physically, but mentally, emotionally and spiritually, and that they were all inter-related.
To become whole, I needed to listen and heal all of me. Although I've always had a tendency to look at the underlying emotional aspects of disease, this time I knew I needed to commit to going deeper and to really doing the work on myself. At the same time, I discovered the depth psychology of Carl Jung, especially his work on alchemy. My husband, Dr. Florian Birkmayer, is a holistic psychiatrist and together we worked on a class bringing alchemy, essential oils, intuitive plant communication and inner healing together.
We emphasized the importance of the healer healing themselves before they try to heal others. As I approached menopause, I saw how useful and empowering these tools were so women can transform their journey from something they feel they are subjected to, into something that is going to bring them a deeper understanding of themselves and help them become the wise elders we need in the world today. Many women do not see peri-menopause as an empowering, beautiful, natural transition to the next part of their lives. This is because they are often disconnected from themselves and from the secrets of the wise crone.
These secrets are like a buried treasure hidden in society’s false image of the wizened, wrinkled, mean old lady. We become frightened, afraid of being rejected, of not being loved anymore, of not being seen or listened to and of not being respected. We search for surface solutions for eternal youth, not realizing that the true beauty of a woman comes from inside. Inner beauty is eternal. It can only be obtained through cultivating the soft strength that exudes from a woman who has transformed herself. Such a woman can see through the eyes of all and has become universal and unique at the same time.
Although The Alchemy of Menopause is aimed at women as they transition to menopause, women of all ages can benefit from understanding that peri-menopause is an important and exciting passage for women, rather than an illness in need of treatment. Recognizing that menopause is woman's age of maturity and independence relieves younger women from the pressure "to have to know" and "to be in their power" right away. They can relax into their lifelong journey of transformation, knowing that they are still apprentices to themselves before menopause. Older women can also benefit from the ideas and exercises in the book. It is never too late to work on our selves and step into our authentic powerful selves.
The approach I use is very exciting to me because my husband and I created it through working deeply on our own healing journeys and have also used it to teach others to work on theirs. We call this method “Applied Aromagnosis.” Aroma and Gnosis both come from Ancient Greek. We all know what Aroma means. Gnosis means the direct perception of the Spirit in Nature. Through scent, we become aware that Nature is conscious and intelligent. Through awareness, we have the opportunity to reclaim our living relationship to plants and all of Nature, seen and unseen.
We see a beautiful synthesis between aromatherapy and alchemy, which in C. G. Jung’s view is a model of personal evolution and soul growth. Aromatic molecules, found in essential oils and hydrosols, have profound powers to heal physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Through scent we can connect with the intrinsic aliveness all around us and within us—the collective unconscious.
By reclaiming this connectedness we heal ourselves and Nature. Our own Wounded Healer’s Journey is central to all healing—of ourselves, of our clients, of our environment.
What I myself really needed to work on with these unconscious emotions that underlie ‘physical’ diseases was a coherent framework. And I knew other people were crying out for the same. The combination of Carl Jung’s depth psychology and aromatic molecules provide this framework.
Aromatic molecules are the most powerful means to change our emotions and our mental patterns, which is why I believe plants evolved them. Plants wanted to have a way of communicating with us, of keeping us in the network of everything that is alive. Aromatic molecules work across species, from plant to human, and touch us deeply. It is time to reawaken to our deep connection to nature and aromatic molecules are the invisible weave.
I had often heard people talk about alchemy. In the plant medicine world, subjects such as spagyrics always held a certain mystique and intrigue for me, although I did not know much about them. It wasn’t until I was initiated into the work of Carl Jung through my husband Florian Birkmayer, MD, that alchemy started making sense.
Jung views the alchemical stages as symbolic of psychological and spiritual processes that happen within us and allow us to turn our challenges in life into alchemical gold. Through reading many ancient alchemical texts, Jung realized that their descriptions of their experiences of the seemingly outer processes of turning lead into gold was a pure and raw description of their unconscious psychological inner processes. The alchemists didn’t have psychological terms or awareness of the psyche and unconscious in the modern sense, although they knew that their ‘gold was no ordinary gold’, but inner soul gold.
Jung saw the alchemical processes as models of transformation of all aspects of one’s being. Instead of suffering from challenging experiences or emotions, we can turn them into energy for growth and transformation. Our emotional, mental, physical and spiritual bodies go through continuous, cyclical, total transformations, which are often challenging and can make us feel like we are ill or imbalanced.
The alchemical framework gives us a framework so we can be aware and work with these powerful energies in our unconscious. In this way, our so called ‘negative’ states of being can be understood and accepted as a ‘normal’ part of the process of becoming more whole. Specifically for menopause, alchemy opened my eyes. Menopause is not a period of suffering, or a disease, but a woman’s most powerful period of transformation.
It has been a relief to find a system that offers an active definition of health. Rather than health just being the absence of disease, which is the biomedical definition, in alchemy optimum health is a continuous process. It is the journey of the ego to the Self, which Jung called Individuation. Our life challenges are not barriers, but stepping stones on this path.
At the same time, the alchemical view of plant medicine is that they are not materials that heal a specific symptom or disease, but that they are living teachers that guide us along the path.
The workbook is divided into two parts. The first part prepares women for the journey through the alchemical stages. In the second part we go through the actual stages that “transform a woman from child bearer to bearer of wisdom.”
I believe that during the passage to menopause we no longer focus on external happenings. Our perspective is turned inwards. What we once knew as truth falls away and dissolves. We are forced through a birth canal once again. The passage of birthing ourselves can take months to years. What is certain is that the old way of being ends. We have no choice but to be squeezed by the contractions of menopause towards the new form, which we know nothing about yet.
I want to explore the changes, the ‘symptoms’, of peri-menopause as messengers from our psyche. I want women to use this workbook to understand and reclaim their journey to Menopause. Every woman’s journey is unique and personal. I provide a framework with which you can explore and discover your own uniqueness. There is no right or wrong. There is only each woman’s individual song.
A successful passage to menopause brings us the gift of maturity. Maturity means being intimate with all parts of ourselves. In order to live through this passage in a transformational manner, we must be conscious of all of ourselves, including our unconscious. We also need to understand what this maturity or wholeness we are aiming at is. Without this awareness, the journey is much more difficult.
We are at a difficult time in the history of humanity, which is highlighted by severe ecological degradation, with increasing loss of species and habitats on the planet. At the same time, more and more people are talking about ‘the feminine rising.’ I see this as the feminine quality—in both men and women—that is crying out to be acknowledged, expressed and healed.
The feminine is coming out of the shadows. Archetypally feminine traits, including awareness of natural cycles, our deep connection to nature, and intuition and receptivity need to be recognized and allowed a voice on the world’s stage today. I know this is happening. It is important at this time that women re-connect with their own feminine power, in order for men to connect with theirs. We have a responsibility in this process that is happening within each of us and globally.
Menopause is an important doorway in the life of modern women. I want to help them recognize this period in their lives as a time for deep, inner healing and transformation. This will help women become powerful, wise elders, which in turn will help the collective, global situation. I believe it is essential.
That we have a responsibility to ourselves, to the world, to nature and to future generations to step into our true authentic selves, to love ourselves when we are strong and powerful and to recognize that feminine power is not the same as masculine power. Feminine power is deep, embracing, receptive, intuitive and necessary for a healthy world.
The book is a workbook and a process. I recommend that women don’t just read the book, but commit to doing the exercises. The book guides their lived experience. When they have finished, I hope that it will have given them enough insight and ideas about their own journeys to continue to grow, make art, sing their song, dance and above all remember that menopause is a gift. It is an initiation through which we redefine who we really are. I think it is useful to join women’s groups in order to share, exchange and support each other’s journeys.
We need to remember the importance for younger women to be in contact with wise elders that have stepped into their power and transformed their experiences. Whales are the only other mammal that appear to go through menopause. The non-fertile, older female whales become leaders and teachers in their community, showing the younger male whales where the best swimming grounds are, etc. I believe that the crone has an important role in the community as a wise elder sharing her experience with the larger collective.
I think it is complementary to other books. There are many good books and resources out there to support and alleviate the physical changes women may encounter during peri-menopause, but there is practically nothing that offers guidance, exercises and techniques for working through the emotional, mental and spiritual aspects. Also, we can tolerate the physical symptoms more easily with the right frame of mind. My hope is that this book gives women the power to make the best out of this transformative stage in their lives.
To purchase the paperback workbook, full of colorful collages and diagrams for exercises, visit Amazon.com by clicking here.
Cathy Skipper trained in France as a herbalist and aromatherapist and is now living in Taos, New Mexico. Her journey in plant medicine lead her to working with plants intuitively and helping others to reconnect with nature. Using the alchemical journey towards individuation and aromatics, she guides healers and therapists in ways to heal their own wounds and find their personal myth in order to help others. She believes for men and women to embrace the divine feminine within, women need to lead the way. She is devoted to transforming the way women experience menopause, using intuitive plant communication, art and inner journey work, she leads them through their own authentic inner journeys towards true empowerment in order for them to become the wise women elders we so badly need.
Cathy is the author of two books, Aromatic Medicine and The Alchemy of Menopause.
She teaches “Intuitive Plant communication”, “hydrosol distilling” and “Alchemy, aromatherapy, the wounded healer and medicine of the soul” as online classes through ‘The School of Aromatic Studies’
Rosalee is an herbalist and author of the bestselling book Alchemy of Herbs: Transform Everyday Ingredients Into Foods & Remedies That Heal. She's a registered herbalist with the American Herbalist Guild and the Education Director for LearningHerbs. Read about how Rosalee went from having a terminal illness to being a bestselling author in her full story here.